CRF Blog

A Different Idea of Our Declaration

by Bill Hayes

In A Different Idea of Our Declaration for the New York Review of Books, Gordon S. Wood reviews Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by Danielle Allen.

This is a strange and remarkable book. There must be dozens of books on the Declaration of Independence written from every conceivable point of view — historical, political, theoretical, philosophical, and textual — but no one has ever written a book on the Declaration quite like this one. If we read the Declaration of Independence slowly and carefully, Danielle Allen believes, then the document can become a basic primer for our democracy. It can be something that all of us — not just scholars and educated elites but common ordinary people — can participate in, and should participate in if we want to be good democratic citizens.

Allen, who is a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, came to this extraordinary conclusion when she was teaching for a decade at the University of Chicago. But it was not the young bright-eyed undergraduates whom she taught by day who inspired her. Instead, it was the much older, life-tested adults whom she taught by night who created “the single most transformative experience” of her teaching career.

As she slowly worked her way through the 1,337 words of the Declaration of Independence with her night students, many of whom had no job or were working two jobs or were stuck in dead-end part-time jobs, Allen discovered that the document had meaning for them and that it was accessible to any reader or hearer of its words. By teaching the document to these adult students in the way that she did, she experienced “a personal metamorphosis.” For the first time in her life she came to realize that the Declaration makes a coherent philosophical argument about equality, an argument that could be made comprehensible to ordinary people who had no special training. [more]

For a free classroom lesson on the Declaration, see The Declaration of Independence and Natural Rights from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive.